Hurricane Matthew bears down on Georgia coast; Flooding hits Tybee

St. Marys residents Michael and Tori Munton make their way through their city's flooded streets as the storm surge from Hurricane Matthew hit on Friday. Curtis Compton /

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

St. Marys residents Michael and Tori Munton make their way through their city's flooded streets as the storm surge from Hurricane Matthew hit on Friday. Curtis Compton /

Hurricane Matthew charged up the Georgia coast overnight, lashing the shoreline with high winds and intense rain.

The storm was still battering Tybee Island early this morning as the water there began to rise.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter said at least 18 inches had flooded into the first level of the house on the north end of the island where he was riding out the hurricane. And the water was continuing to climb at 5 a.m. as the powerful storm surge rolled in. The southeast end of Tybee is known to be even more flood prone.

The house shaking, the AJC reporter had taken refuge in a second floor bathroom early Saturday morning. The storm - now a category 2 hurricane - has maximum sustained winds of 105 mph.

Matthew brushed by Tybee soon after high tide. Winds were continuing to gust and the rain to pour down as dawn approached. Storm surges in the area could reach nine feet,.

Tybee was cut off from the mainland, with some roads already underwater late Friday night, including stretches of U.S. 80

A bulletin from the National Hurricane Center at 5 a.m. said the northern eyewall of the hurricane was starting to pummel Hilton Head and Pritchards islands in South Carolina.

Paul Wolff, a long-time Tybee resident, said his house began swaying as winds picked up after 2 a.m. For the first time since Hurricane Floyd in 1999, Wolf said he was glad he'd invested the time to make storm shutters out of sturdy deck lumber.

"The house is rockin,' but Mother Nature's just knockin,'" Wolf told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as the storm howled outside.

Thousands of Georgians had evacuated their homes in advance of Matthew's arrival. More than 135,000 had no electricity, and 2,000 members of the national Guard were headed to the coast on Friday.

Georgia's coast hasn't had a direct strike from a hurricane in more than a century.

More than 2 million people in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas are under mandatory evacuation orders. Many of the nearly half-million people living in Georgia's six coastal counties fled into the state's interior. Thousands sought refuge at Red Cross and other shelters across the state. President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Georgia and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local efforts.

Michael Whitmore, a St. Marys resident, passes by a boarded up pizza business searching for an open store for supplies on Hwy 40 West as Hurricane Matthew hits the area on Friday, Oct. 7, 2016, in Saint Marys.

Credit: Curtis Compton /

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Credit: Curtis Compton /

Matthew was downgraded from Category 4 to Category 3 overnight, but it remains exceedingly dangerous and is expected to strengthen as it churns northward. Forecasts are calling for up to 14 inches of rain along the Georgia coast.

While federal, state and local government leaders warned residents to prepare, plans were already in place to deal with Matthew’s aftermath.

“For those still in the path of the storm, stay indoors during the hurricane and away from windows and glass doors,” Jim Butterworth, director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, said. “Emergency response may not be available for up to 72 hours after Matthew has passed. First responders will not be allowed to respond in conditions that endanger their personal safety.”

Butterworth said 9,000 Georgians are in shelters across the state, but there are 13,000 spaces available. The Red Cross has 23 shelters in place, a spokeswoman for the agency said. More than 900 hospital patients and 116 long-term-care patients have also been evacuated.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a Regional Response Coordination Center activated in Atlanta, as well as the National Response Coordination Center at FEMA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. FEMA deployed 10 Urban Search & Rescue task force teams to Florida and Georgia to support search and rescue missions. The Georgia National Guard has also activated 1,000 troops to assist in the response.

In downtown St. Marys, water was about knee high about 3:15 p.m. as the storm surge pushed water about two blocks inland. A few people tried to brave waters on foot, bike and in their cars but quickly turned back. The water had receded as night fell. Heavy rain lashed homes in the blackness.

Camden County emergency services pulled vehicles off the roads and suspended 911 service in the face of sustained tropical storm force winds and rain.

Meanwhile, Glynn County authorities Thursday spoke in almost apocalyptic terms of the chances for devastation on St. Simons and Jekyll Islands.

A statement from county officials said Matthew could turn into a 500-year event with 9-foot storm surges carrying 25-foot waves.

Aric Sparmann of Brunswick comes out to take some photographs near St. Simons Pier as Hurricane Matthew approaches in St. Simons Island on Friday morning, October 7, 2016.


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“Under the current forecast,” Glynn officials said in a prepared statement, “total devastation of the barrier islands is possible and portions of F.J. Torras Causeway and Jekyll Island Causeway may be completely lost.”

A heavy rain began around 8:30 a.m. on St. Simons Island, now a ghost town. Many of the stores here are shuttered, boarded up or lined with sandbags.

Savannah and Chatham County received a couple of inches of rain, a bit of flooding and one definite tornado Friday by late afternoon, but everybody knew the worst was yet to come.

A dawn-to-dusk curfew is in place for Chatham County.

“Let me make it very clear,” said county chairman Al Scott said during a late-afternoon press conference with elected and emergency officials in downtown Savannah. “We are not going to tolerate looting or break-ins or robberies. Once it’s dark and until daylight, if you are out on the street you will be stopped.”

The commissioner said a few break-ins Thursday prompted Friday’s curfew.

The storm was downgraded from Category 4 on Thursday to Category 2 Friday afternoon but remained exceedingly dangerous, and was set to dump 8-12 inches of rain on the coast, according to the National Hurricane Center. A hurricane warning was in effect from north of Fernandina Beach, Fla. to Surf City, N.C.

Matthew has not caused the catastrophic damage to Florida that forecasters had feared, and the question now is what the storm holds in store for Georgia.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott warned Florida residents not to let down their guard. The storm has not delivered the knockout punch in Florida that everyone feared, but it's far from over and could yet turn west and hit Florida and Georgia directly. (More Florida storm coverage from the Palm Beach Post.)

Pierless: St. Simons Island Pier is closed as Hurricane Matthew moves closer to Georgia on Friday morning. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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Forecasters predicted that Matthew would arrive in force in Georgia late tonight or early Saturday. The National Hurricane Center predicted it would be a Category 2 hurricane (maximum of 110 mph winds) when it strikes the Georgia coast.

Gov. Nathan Deal ordered the mandatory evacuation of portions of the six coastal counties and closed the eastbound ramps of I-16 near Dublin so westbound traffic could use those, too.

Chris Riley, the governor’s chief of staff, said today that authorities would “press the message that residents who ignore the mandatory evacuation put our first responders in harm’s way. We have activated 320 national guard soldiers and will probably call more into duty today.”

Shelby (left) and Camo, the dogs of skipper Robert Lineberger,ride out Hurricane Matthew at Knuckleheads, a small shop at the St. Marys Waterfront Park. (Curtis Compton /

Credit: Curtis Compton

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Credit: Curtis Compton

During a press conference Friday afternoon, Deal urged Georgians to stay away from the coast until given the all-clear in the days to come.

He said state agencies must assess hurricane-affected areas once Matthew moves away from the state.

“Don’t put yourself in greater jeopardy by trying to return too soon,” Deal said.

Deal spoke with President Barack Obama on Thursday and asked that he sign an order declaring a federal emergency. Obama did so that night. On Friday, the president urged those along the coast to remain vigilant.

“Those of you who live in Georgia I think should be paying attention because there's been a lot of emphasis on Florida, but this thing is going to keep on moving north, through Florida, into South Carolina,” Obama said at the White House. “There are large population centers there that could be vulnerable, so pay attention to what your local officials are telling you.”

In other developments:

  • More than 4,500 flights were canceled Friday, including every flight to and from Orlando. The big theme parks — Disney World, SeaWorld and Universal — all closed because of the storm.
  • By Friday, the state Department of Corrections had moved 1,543 inmates from Coastal State Prison outside Savannah, as well as from a nearby halfway house, to other prisons not in the storm's path.
  • Saturday's Georgia-South Carolina game was pushed into Sunday in Columbia, with an expected 2:30 start time.
  • The state Department of Transportation said it would close the Talmadge Memorial Bridge at noon today. The Sidney Lanier Bridge on Ga. 25 in Brunswick is already blocked off.

‘I told them I wasn’t going anywhere’

In St. Marys this morning, James Wilson of Kingsland watched the rain and wind gathering strength before dawn from the balcony outside his room at the Cumberland Kings Bay Lodge.

The southern tip of Georgia’s coast is included in a mandatory evacuation zone.

“Everybody else wanted to leave but I told them I wasn’t going anywhere,” he said.

The streets of St. Marys were largely empty, though there were cars in motel and apartment parking lots and in a number of driveways. Many shops had their windows taped and few businesses other than Wilson’s motel were open.

“I’m mad it’s raining,” he said. “I really want to get some coffee.”

Georgia has not had a direct hit from a hurricane in more than a century, and the mandatory evacuation order came a day after Deal expanded a state of emergency from 13 to 30 counties in the southeastern region of the state.

Georgia’s state of emergency covers Appling, Atkinson, Bacon, Brantley, Bryan, Bulloch, Burke, Camden, Candler, Charlton, Chatham, Clinch, Coffee, Echols, Effingham, Emanuel, Evans, Glynn, Jeff Davis, Jenkins, Liberty, Long, McIntosh, Pierce, Screven, Tattnall, Treutlen, Toombs, Ware and Wayne counties.

‘My first hurricane and my last hurricane’

In Brunswick, a bleary-eyed Diane Najar ambled around a motel lobby this morning and made a firm declaration.

“This is my first hurricane and my last hurricane,” said Najar, originally from El Paso, Texas. “I’m leaving.”

Najar and her husband got a condo on St. Simons a year and a half ago and were supposed to be there five years. The couple has been at a Brunswick motel since Wednesday night with two changes of clothes.

Najar was already worried about the storm, but a 5 a.m. phone call left her more concerned.

A friend who works at Brunswick’s Southeast Georgia Hospital said they’d evacuated the hospital at 7 p.m. Thursday.

Another thing is making her anxious: She doesn’t know how to swim.

“I’m afraid it’s going to be another Katrina,” she said.

In Brunswick Thursday night, Jayesh Patel (left), owner, and Mahesh Patel board up their gas station ahead of Hurricane Matthew. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

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Credit: Hyosub Shin

AJC reporters on the Georgia coast are live-tweeting the storm: Follow@dchapmanajc@JeremyLRedmonand@FitzTrubey.